The new pariah state

Hamas showed its strength in forcing Fatah from Gaza. But will it turn the desperate strip into a ne

Naser, a Palestinian cameraman, paid a visit to a family friend in Gaza last Sunday and found an eerily changed place. It was the first time he had set foot in the strip since Hamas declared its victory over Fatah in what was a humiliating military defeat for the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas. More than a hundred of his forces were slain, or cold-bloodedly thrown from rooftops by Hamas fighters.

But that Sunday, Naser and his friends were overcome by a silence that had fallen on the battleground. No shots were heard that evening nor the evenings that followed. In previous months, the night air would have been pungent with gunfire as armed factions challenged one another, or family disputes erupted into violence. Monder, a lawyer from Al-Shati camp, also noted the altered mood. He observed how Gazans uncharacteristically respected traffic lights that were being manned by Hamas supporters rather than the little-respected traffic police of old. While Naser and Monder expressed relief at this new law-abiding behaviour by fellow citizens, they voiced concerns that Gaza was showing signs of a Taliban-style of government. This might have brought law and order to Afghanistan. It also plunged that country into the dark ages.

In an attempt to mollify the Egyptian government and lure it way from its historic alliance with Fatah, the Hamas leader, Khalid Mishal, told Egyptian authorities that his movement's tough stand against Fatah in Gaza had been necessary to prevent the strip from becoming a haven for al-Qaeda splinter groups. He was referring in part to the powerful clan of Dagmoush, which is responsible for holding captive the BBC correspondent Alan Johnston for the past three months. Mishal said Gaza's lawlessness had provided a fertile environment in which extreme groups could flourish. This message was important for Egyptian officials, who have had difficulty controlling their border with Gaza and preventing gangs from infiltrating on both sides via a network of underground tunnels. Over the past few years, Egyptian resorts along the Sinai coast have been targeted by suicide bombers, claiming hundreds of lives and seriously affecting the tourism industry on which Egypt depends. Security forces believe a number of Egyptian nationals from the desert border region were affiliated to al-Qaeda and had been hiding in the Gaza town of Rafah. Some reports have suggested they may also have received training and financial support from members of Hamas without the approval of its leadership.

Hamas's strongman in Gaza, Mahmoud al- Zahhar, the movement's former foreign minister, said the group was keen to co-operate with the Egyptian government, despite the strong links between Hamas, the Palestinian branch of the Islamic Brotherhood and its Egyptian mother branch - Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak's main opponent. This position was seen by some in the region as a PR campaign to improve Hamas's tarnished image following the brutal killings of its opponents and an attempt to woo western governments to talk to its deposed prime minister, Ismail Haniya. Still, by issuing threats against Johnston's captors, Hamas appears to be taking practical steps to distance itself from Islamic organisations and clans allied to al-Qaeda. It has not gone unnoticed that the kidnappers have said they would exchange Johnston for Abu Qutada, an al-Qaeda leader held in a British jail.

Search for friends

The Hamas decision to seize control of Gaza was born out of the realisation that this was the only available way of gaining the recognition, or at least attention, of the international community. Since its election victory in January 2006, it had been cold shouldered. The west's strategy did not change even after Hamas joined a unity government with Fatah three months ago.

Just as Taliban-ruled Afghanistan was recognised only by Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates, the Talibanisation of Gaza would leave it a pariah state with only Iran and Syria for friends. The consequences for Gaza's one million starving Palestinian population are alarming. At the moment nobody knows who will pay the salaries of more than 120,000 public-sector employees. Will Israel allow food and aid to get across checkpoints? What will happen to Palestinians crossing the border from Gaza to Egypt?

While Hamas's leaders do not appear to have answers to any of the questions, it seems that some of them, at least, are aware of the responsibilities they face. Al-Zahhar sent a message to the Israelis that said: "Hamas will not attack Israel before Israel attacks us." This raises another question: What will be Hamas's attitude towards other Palestinian factions such as Islamic Jihad or even Fatah's military wing, known as the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, should they continue launching rocket attacks against neighbouring Israeli settlements? The only certainty would be the strength of Israel's response.

The timing of Hamas's military victory over Fatah suggests it must have co-ordinated with, or consulted, Tehran and Damascus. It is now clear that the sophistication of Hamas's arsenal easily dwarfed Fatah's resistance. However, that weaponry will count for little, surrounded as Gaza is by a hostile world.

Zaki Chehab is the author of "Inside Hamas", published by I B Tauris in the UK (£16.99) and by Nation Books in the US ($25.95)

Voices from Gaza

Atef Safi, 29: "Gaza's population has paid the price for the power struggle. Both factions are big-headed. We have ended up with a mini- Palestinian state for Hamas in Gaza without sovereignty and a large luxury state for Fatah without sovereignty in the West Bank. I hold the international community responsible for not dealing with the unity government that included ministers of both sides and for not lifting the embargo. Hamas was forced to take over the Gaza Strip as the world, including Fatah, did not give Hamas a chance."

Nasser Hammad, 40: "I'm so happy that Hamas has put an end to the security chaos. I now feel safe and I'm not worried any more about my children going alone to school. I drove my car today. I was excited to see policemen at every crossroad directing traffic. Police have also started to storm drug dealers' strongholds, which is good. Shame on Abbas's security forces. Even though he had 40,000 security men in Gaza, he was unable to end the lawlessness. Hamas had only 17,000."

Roa'a Salem, 22: "What is happening is the implementation of an Israeli-US conspiracy to make Palestinians forget about their real goal: to end 40 years of Israeli occupation and to establish a Palestinian state. Israel will support Abbas in the West Bank, easing life by removing some checkpoints and helping the economy improve there. At the same time, they will keep severe sanctions on Gaza, so that Gazans will rebel against Hamas. I think this won't happen. I predict that Israel will wage a full-scale invasion and shell the security compounds seized by Hamas."

Mahmoud, 30: "If you ask people here about their priorities, they will tell you, 'We want to feel safe and we want an end to anarchy.' We must get rid of the collaborators and mercenaries in the security forces led by Fatah, who participated in the siege imposed by the quartet to bring down the Palestinian government led by Hamas."

Compiled by Yousef Alhelou, Gaza City